Friday, 30 October 2020

MOVIE: Circus Of Horrors (1960)



Circus Of Horrors

Directed by Sidney Hayers

Starring Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith, Conrad Phillips, Jack Gwillim, Vanda Hudson, Yvonne Romain, Colette Wilde

Lynx Films/Independent Artists/Anglo-Amalgamated 1960

Dr. Rossiter, a gifted if somewhat maverick plastic surgeon, is on the run after his work on Evelyn Morley Finsbury has gone awry. She has been missing following her surgery. When her husband finds her, she has trashed every mirror in her room. She is horribly scarred and laughing maniacally[1].

Meanwhile, Rossiter drives straight through a police roadblock, before swerving off the road and down an embankment. He survives, but has sustained facial injuries. Making his way on foot to his two assistants, brother and sister Martin and Angela, Rossiter gets himself patched up before the trio take flight to France. There they come across a young girl by the side of the road: Nicole has been facially scarred by an explosion during the war, and she takes the three to her father Vanet, the owner of a derelict circus which has fallen on hard times.

Sensing the perfect cover for his ongoing experiments, Rossiter (now going under the pseudonym of Dr. Schuler) agrees to treat Nicole in return for shared ownership of the circus. A grateful Vanet agrees, but just after the deal is made he drunkenly decides to perform a celebratory dance with his performing bear. When the bear steps on some broken glass and turns vicious, Vanet is mauled. Schuler/Rossiter looks like he is about to intervene, before holding back and leaving Vanet to his grisly fate. Schuler is now in sole charge of the circus.

Heading into town for a drink, Schuler spies a prostitute named Elissa in a bar, preparing to rob a potential client (Schuler sees her concealing a knife in her cleavage). He witnesses her taking the hapless punter’s wallet in an alleyway before brutally stabbing him. As she flees, Schuler stops Elissa in her tracks. Seeing that she bears a knife scar on her face, he offers to help her both with surgery and in evading the police.

Angela questions why Schuler should want to help her. He reasons that such a person is perfect for their circus, as she will not blow their cover and will be forever indebted to the doctor. He plans to find more such subjects, to surgically heal before training them as performers. “A circus of criminals?”, asks Angela. “No”, replies Schuler. “A circus of beauty!”

At this point, the story jumps ten years, and the glamorously transformed circus arrives in Berlin[2]. Angela, who has been hopelessly in love with the doctor since the film began and beyond, now finds herself marginalised, whilst Martin has been essentially reduced to assisting Elissa, who has honed an impressive aerial rope act in the intervening years[3]. Elissa’s not happy at playing second fiddle to Magda von Meck, whose horse-riding act involves riding through an archway made from razor-sharp swords.

Magda has decided to leave the circus, to marry a well-off gentleman who promises a life of luxury. Schuler isn’t happy with this betrayal, and since we are led to believe that he has arranged a series of accidents for previous ingrates[4], Magda should be wary before engaging in her other role, as the assistant in a knife-throwing act…

There’s enough here already to fill the duration of many movies, but we’re only 37 minutes in! Proceedings now shift up another gear: Schuler takes on another performer, much to Elissa’s chagrin, and takes the show to England, where he plans to finally unveil his medical work. Martin and Angela finally pluck up the courage to turn against Schuler, the police finally twig that the series of deaths in the circus may not have been accidents after all, and a figure from Schuler’s previous life as Rossiter re-appears, leading to the film’s final showdown[5].

Naturally, in today’s climate the deaths in Circus Of Horrors will inevitably seem quite tame, but what is worth noting is how much it seems to focus as much on titillation by scantily-clad females as it does on shocking the audience with its gruesome deaths. It is sold just as much on sexual appeal as on its horrific elements. The blatant display of female flesh is almost as giggle inducing as it is mildly shocking in these more politically charged times.

And yet, Circus Of Horrors is still a rollicking ride. Director Sidney Hayers simply acts like the most ludicrous of plot elements are perfectly normal, and just gets on with things. This approach perhaps made him a perfect choice for helming episodes of The Avengers a few years later. Never mind that the film expects us to believe that any street criminal can be fixed-up and turned into an acrobatic performer by a deranged plastic surgeon. This is the British horror film – you either buy into it, or you don’t. 

Circus Of Horrors hit UK cinemas in April of 1960, and would (no doubt to the annoyance of highbrow critics and self-appointed guardians of public morals) do very well indeed, following on from Anglo-Amalgamated's equally reviled Horrors Of The Black Museum (1959). The following month, Anglo’s next release would have considerably less in the way of good fortune. Peeping Tom would cause a critical outcry, performed badly and only got the briefest of theatrical releases before being pulled from distribution completely. A brief window of leniency from the BBFC was abruptly shut, and screen horror in the UK would be noticeably toned down for the next few years.

 


FOOTNOTES:

[1] To be fair, the doctor has warned Evelyn that one operation will not suffice, and that she will require several over a period of at least a year. She ignores this advice, and removes her bandages too soon. If she had listened to her doctor’s orders, the chain of events which follows might well have been avoided, but then we wouldn’t have much of a movie.

[2] Billy Smart’s Circus stood in for Schuler’s enterprise from this point in the film.

[3] Elissa’s act is accompanied by Look For A Star, as performed by Garry Mills. This saccharine ditty is played incessantly throughout the remainder of the film, an act of earworm-inducing product placement which evidently paid off: The tie-in single on the Top Rank label would reach number 7 in the UK. In the USA, it reached number 26, fighting against competition from no less than three rival versions, including one by a singer who cheekily adopted the similar-sounding pseudonym of Garry Miles.

[4] We don’t get to see most of these, sadly. But then, with an on-screen body count of 6 (or 7, if you include one of the circus animals) the BBFC probably felt they’d allowed quite enough.

[5] Reading back through this synopsis, it does strike me how ridiculous this looks on the page, and highlights how lucky Britain was to have actors of Diffring’s calibre on hand to appear in these films. Lesser talents could never have pulled them off with such élan.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

MOVIE: I See You (2019)



I See You

Directed by Adam Randall

Starring Helen Hunt, Jon Tenney, Judah Lewis, Owen Teague, Libe Barber, Gregory Alan Williams

Bankside Films/Head Gear Films/Kreo Films/Zodiac Features 2019

Following the disappearance of a small boy, the investigating officer and his family are affected by a series of strange happenings. There may be a link to a series of child disappearances some years earlier, but matters are further complicated by the infidelity of the officer's wife, and the couple's attempts at reconciliation.

This is one smart little chiller-thriller, its first half cranking up an unnerving atmosphere, leaving you wondering how it can sustain it for the second half.

The thing is, the film doesn't sustain it. In fact, it wilfully changes tack completely in the most surprising manner, putting a totally different complexion on the events of the first half. Character motivations are revealed to be nothing like they may have seemed, the true source of some of the stranger phenomena is unexpected and it's a chilling reveal when we learn the identity of the true villian of the piece.

We don't get to find out fully what has happened in the child abductions (past and present), but Devon Graye's screenplay leaves enough scraps of detail scattered around for us to fill in the gaps and go to some very dark places.

Perhaps not one for those looking for a quick horror fix, the more patient viewer will be amply rewarded. Deftly structured and executed, with all-round excellent performances, I See You kept me hooked and wrong-footed in equal measure right to the end, and is certainly one of my favourite releases of the past year.

Sunday, 30 August 2020

MOVIE: Plot Of Fear (1976)


Plot Of Fear

aka E tanta paura, aka Bloody Peanuts

Directed by Paolo Cavara

Starring Michele Placido, Corinne Cléry, Eli Wallach, Tom Skerritt

Centro Produzioni Cinematografiche Città di Milano/G.P.E. Enterprises 1976

On the same night, a female prostitute strangles her client, while a woman is battered around the head with a spanner on a deserted bus. The only link: at the scene of both murders, illustrations from a children’s book called “Shockheaded Peter” have been left behind.

When more murders occur, again marked with illustrations from the same book, the victims are linked back to an elite group calling itself Wildlife’s Friends. Inspector Lomenzo (Placido) is assigned to investigate.

There’s a decent giallo struggling to get out of this one, a frustratingly laboured effort from the director who just five years earlier had given us the rather good Black Belly Of The Tarantula (1971). The dialogue scenes frequently fail to sparkle and the attempt to liven-up proceedings with soft-core sex is all too symptomatic of the original cycle’s death throes. Even the murder scenes don’t quite hit the mark as they should. Things do improve considerably towards the climax, but even by the genre’s standards the denouement will take a bit of work to get your head around.

On the credit side, Michele Placido makes for an engaging force of law and order (at least when he manages to keep his clothes on), while Eli Wallach (despite being dubbed in both Italian and English versions by someone who sounds nothing like Eli Wallach) adds some welcome gravitas, as the head of a video surveillance firm who may or may not be helping the police with their enquiries.

By contrast, Corinne Cléry (fresh from a notorious appearance in The Story Of O (1975)) is mainly required to add titillation value and get naked on occasion. Tom Skerrit has very little to do and is likely just there to add another recognisable name for English-speaking territories.

Ultimately, Plot Of Fear is not without interest: it at least piques curiosity as a halfway house between the giallo cycle and the cop thrillers which would supersede it as an Italian cinema staple, but also highlights just how much the form was losing its way by the latter part of the decade.

Monday, 24 August 2020

BLU-RAY: Walkabout (1971)

 

Walkabout

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Starring Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg (credited as Lucien John), David Gulpilil (credited as David Gumpilil)

Max L. Raab-Si Litvinoff/20th Century-Fox 1971

When a man takes his teenage daughter and younger son for a drive into the outback for a picnic, things take a shocking turn as he attempts to shoot them. Failing to do so, he torches the family car and turns the gun on himself.

The abandoned children are left to fend for themselves, as they try to make their way back home, or at least to familiar surroundings. They meet an aboriginal boy, who is on his traditional rite of passage (the “walkabout” of the title). Despite not being able to communicate verbally through their language barrier, the boy teaches them how to survive in their unfamiliar and harsh environment.

Walkabout is released on Blu-Ray in the UK by Second Sight on August 31st 2020, so what better opportunity to revisit a film which stuck in my mind from my formative years of film watching, and has revealed more of its facets with subsequent viewings. My memory deceives me that it was on television frequently in my childhood, although a bit of digging reveals that the BBC screened it three times in that period. In the times before we had a video recorder, we must have watched all those screenings in our house.

Naturally, there were elements of the film that failed to register with me at that age. In that sense, it has always felt like the film has grown with me. My younger self viewed it simply as a tale of two stranded children trying to make their way back home, but revisiting Walkabout through the passing years revealed it also to be a tragic tale of cultures clashing, as well as an allegory of modern civilisation moving away from a simpler, perhaps more natural means of existence. As Jenny Agutter says in a fascinating interview included on this Blu-Ray release:

“It tells [its] story both very simply, but with all of the different layers as well. It’s very hard to say exactly what it’s about. You know, people say “what’s the film about?” I think, to me it’s about loss of innocence.”

At this distance, the casting is fascinating. Agutter was yet to make her breakthrough film, that perennial evergreen The Railway Children, although Walkabout would actually end up being released after that particular film. The casting of Roeg’s own son Luc may well have raised a few eyebrows (and might explain the pseudonym on the credits), but it perhaps makes sense that the child in a challenging role should have absolute trust in the director from the off – how better to have this than when the young actor’s father is in charge?

Also making his film debut here was David Gulpilil (curiously credited as David Gumpilil). His performance as the boy on walkabout is so astonishing that it’s truly a puzzle that he didn’t appear in another film for five years, when an impressive triumvirate of Mad Dog Morgan, Storm Boy (an AACTA nominated performance) and The Last Wave all followed in quick succession.



The Blu-Ray:

Walkabout gets the lavish treatment it deserves in Second Sight’s superb release. It is unquestionably one of the most beautifully shot films of its time, and the 4K scan and restoration allows Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography to shine.

Special features include a new audio commentary with Luc Roeg and David Thompson, new interviews with producer Si Litvinoff, Luc Roeg and Jenny Agutter, a new interview with Danny Boyle discussing Nicolas Roeg’s work, a 2011 BFI Q&A with Nicolas Roeg, Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg and an archive introduction by Nicolas Roeg. The main feature also has optional subtitles.

The limited edition box set (3,000 copies) comes with new slipcase artwork by Michael Boland, a copy of Donald G. Payne’s original novel (with unique cover art), a facsimile copy of the original 65 page First Draft Script with preface by Daniel Bird and an additional book with new essays by Sophie Monks Kaufman, Simon Abrams and Daniel Bird, along with stills and lobby card images.

In conclusion:

Walkabout, along with the same year’s Wake In Fright were very much films made from an outsider’s view of Australia (and it’s fascinating to contrast and compare the two films), but they are frequently cited (and with good reason) as kicking off the new wave in Australian cinema, as indigenous filmmakers began to tell their own stories, and with government backing.

The word “seminal” may be somewhat too casually applied to some films, but in the case of Walkabout it is perfectly apposite. It is a shame that a documentary on the career of David Gulpilil (included with an earlier US release) couldn't be included here, but that's a relatively minor quibble overall. The wealth of supplementary materials included with this edition, both on the disc and in the package make up what must be the near-definitive document of this quite unique film, and another fine Second Sight release.

Walkabout is available directly from Second Sight Films for pre-order, released on August 31st 2020. Click HERE to visit the product page (opens in new window).

Sunday, 23 August 2020

MOVIE: The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)

 

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times

aka La damma rossa uccide sette volte

Directed by Emilio Miraglia

Starring Barbara Bouchet, Ugo Pagliai, Marina Malfatti, Sybil Danning

Phoenix Cinematografica/Romano Film/Traian Boeru/Cineriz 1972

 

A prophecy (portrayed in a family painting) dictates that there is a curse on the Wildenbrücks: Every 100 years two sisters will grow to hate each other. One (depicted as the Black Queen), will kill the other (known as the Red Queen). The prophecy says that the Red Queen will then return, killing seven times to avenge her death.

For the current generation of the family, the prophecy seems to be working its spell as Kitty Wildenbrück accidentally kills sister Eveline during a fight. Older sibling Franziska helps to cover the death up, leading everyone to believe that Eveline has gone to the USA, but when grandfather Tobias dies of a fear-induced heart attack and a series of murders linked to Kitty occur, a police artist’s impression of the killer resembles none other than Eveline…

That’s a pretty hefty premise to kick off this giallo with German-shot exteriors. Director Miraglia was perhaps looking to capture the same lightning in a bottle that had made his 1971 effort, The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave such a success, recasting Marina Malfatti from that particular venture. However, this cracking little thriller more than holds its own against its predecessor. Indeed, I might even suggest it’s a better, more rounded film.

Considering that, it’s a great shame that Miraglia never directed another picture after this, but he rounded off his slim filmography with a most enjoyable outing full of the required twists, turns and red herrings. If not quite the peak of the giallo form, it’s certainly a superior entry in the cycle which will more than satisfy the form’s disciples. Horror fans, meanwhile, will find plenty to enjoy in the superbly mounted and executed stalk-and-slash moments, and a water-drenched finale has more than a touch of Poe about it.

A fantastic score from Bruno Nicolai tops things off nicely. Often overshadowed by his fellow countryman Ennio Morricone, his contribution to Italian cinema should never be underestimated.

Interesting aside: The striking imagery of a killer clad in red predates Don’t Look Now by a good year or so.


Friday, 21 August 2020

MOVIE: The Flying Serpent (1946)

 


The Flying Serpent

Directed by Sherman Scott (pseudonym for Sam Newfield)

Starring George Zucco, Ralph Lewis, Hope Kramer, Eddie Acuff

PRC 1946

 

Quetzalcoatl, a flying serpent deity of South American culture has somehow ended up being kept in a cage by megalomaniacal archaeologist Dr. Andrew Forbes (George Zucco), in order to keep his grip on Mentezuma’s treasure. Forbes has discovered that planting one of the creature’s feathers on his perceived enemies will lead the creature to them, attacking them on the jugular in a vampire-like fashion.

It’s a wonder Zucco could keep a straight face during his opening speech, in which he fills the audience in on what’s happened before we join the story, but then George was a professional and never gives less than 100% throughout the picture. He’s far more interesting than the asinine characters who flesh out the cast, so much so that one finds themself cheering against hope for the crazed Dr. to get his way.

It’s not long before Zucco opens his on-screen murder account by setting Quetzalcoatl on a colleague who dares to alert the world to the existence of the treasure in a newspaper article, and in-between the usual talky interludes there are more attacks on anyone who threatens to blow the gaff on his hidden riches.

Dress it up all you like, this is basically a rehash of the same studio’s Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat (1940), but that doesn’t detract from a fun 59 minutes. Truth told, the effects of the creature flying and diving on its prey are rather effective, and more accomplished than you’d expect from a film of this vintage and provenance, although I will concede that the scratches on the print I viewed likely distracted my eyes from any visible wires.

The same seam of Mesoamerican culture would later be exploited to much grander effect by Larry Cohen for Q: The Winged Serpent (1982).

TRIVIA NOTE: Director Sam Newfield frequently used pseudonyms on his work for PRC, likely because he made so many films there. With his brother, studio head Sigmund Neufield also appearing on the credits of the company’s output it may otherwise have looked too much like a two-man operation.


MOVIE: The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (L'assassino ha riservato nove poltrone) (1974)



The Killer Reserved Nine Seats 

aka L'assassino ha riservato nove poltrone

Cinenove/Overseas Film Company 1974

Directed by Giuseppe Bennati

Starring Rosanna Schiaffino, Chris Avram, Eva Czemerys, Lucretia Love, Paola Senatore


A wealthy socialite invites a group of acquaintances away from a party and back to his country villa, within the confines of which is a grand theatre. It soon becomes apparent that the theatre is not a safe place to be, as the guests are killed off one-by-one.

A film often tagged as a giallo, and there is certainly enough of that genre's ingredients here to keep fans occupied, but as things progress its premise (clearly indebted to Agatha Christie) takes a sharp turn into more supernatural territory.

It's an enjoyable enough effort, marred slightly by some sexual violence which adds nothing to proceedings, a curious addition since the film seems somewhat generally coy about depicting the actual murders in any detail. Additionally hampering things is a hamfistedly talky screenplay, and an overly stretched final act which aims for atmosphere but leaves the remaining cast effectively wading through treacle to get to the end.

For all that, the setting is very effective and fans of the "Ten Little Indians" style of thriller will find plenty to enjoy. Sure, characters act illogically throughout, but that's nothing unusual in a film of this ilk. Good soundtrack work adds to things considerably, and there's certainly enough good set pieces to make The Killer Reserved Nine Seats worth tracking down.